I don’t think any of us is expecting life to get any easier in 2016! There are many so forces acting upon us as a sector at the moment which can make it feel like our agenda is being reduced to a fight for survival – and yet there are opportunities ahead. The difficulty will be in getting ourselves organised as a sector to be able to take them up. We need to increase collaboration and that takes an investment of time, energy and creativity which are rare commodities when you’re working flat out simply to keep the doors open. Here are some thoughts on what lies ahead in 2016…
Devolution – if things seemed to be moving fast in 2015, it’s going to accelerate further in 2016. As the Greater Manchester structures become more established, we need to find ways to engage. There is a VCSE sector reference group but it’s largely self-selected and needs to evolve into a proper representative structure for the sector which can engage in the kind of conversation we need at GM level. I’m involved in this and will be reporting back as it develops. It’s also important to remember that with the elections for the GM Mayor in 2017, this year is going to be the time when the political agenda for the election is determined. It’s time for us to start setting our ideas for what we’d like to see the candidates committing to.
Cohesion – as the international situation with ISIS / Daesh escalates ever further and the UK now more directly involved in war, we need to focus on building and maintaining cohesion across local communities. Manchester could and should be a model of how people live together with a shared sense of community. The situation in Syria will lead to increasing numbers of refugees coming into the city, we will have practical issues to deal with in making sure people fleeing from violence are supported. We also have a public-facing role to challenge stereotyping in the media. The same can be said for the increasing media attacks on people who need a social safety net for other reasons: poverty, poor mental health, lack of housing, etc. There is so much brilliant work going on in our sector to support people who for whatever reason are in need of the basics of ordinary life (somewhere to live, someone to love, something to do and something to hope for) – we need to keep celebrating those efforts and show what we as a sector can do to ensure nobody is left out. We need to challenge attempts to divide people into ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’. Everyone who lives, studies or works in Manchester has a right to be safe, healthy and happy.
Reputation – just before Christmas certain parts of the press launched a number of attacks on the VCSE sector, following from some fairly hostile coverage over the closure of Kids Company and the issues around fundraising. As local organisations we need to keep reminding people that we’re a sector which is driven by a desire to find solutions, to create maximum impact and improve lives. We need to be able to show people (public, partners and funders) that we are good enough as organisations but that our main role is the difference we make, not a drive for growth for its own sake nor a cheap alternative.
Economy – there is talk of another economic collapse. This may be scaremongering or it may be so remote from the day-to-day reality that its impact will be impossible to predict. What is clear is that the environment we’re operating in is getting even tougher: with public budgets reducing still further and other factors like housing associations being squeezed by new controls on their assets, their income and the rights of tenants. With capacity in our sector – particularly in the advice sector – already greatly reduced, we will need to find new ways to support people. My view, as I’ve been saying for some years, is that the way forward is to increase the ability of our social economy to help people get what they need: if the mainstream ‘cash’ economy can’t deliver, what can our sector do? Again, collaboration is key: particularly finding ways to channel resources where they are needed most. The Comprehensive Spending Review saw the Government effectively announce the end of the principle of moving money from the wealthiest areas to the poorest, with massive reductions in the grants to local authorities. So what other ways can we develop to help people get what they need?
Public services – as the ‘Graph of Doom’ showed, we’re virtually at the point where public services have no room left in their budget to do anything beyond the statutory minimum – and they may struggle to do even that. What will be the impact of the rise in the Minimum Wage on the provision of social care? Can Adult Social care cope with a rising older population and high levels of poor health in Manchester? We already know Children’s Services are in trouble in Manchester and while we hope the newly-appointed Director of Children’s Services will help turn this around, it will take some years to achieve while budgets are reducing. The only way out of this is investing in preventative approaches – and that’s potentially where we can have greatest impact. But if there isn’t investment in the sector, will we still be there to ‘hold back the tide’, preventing people’s needs getting to the point where they require services the public sector can no longer afford to deliver? We need to move faster as a sector to create and develop ways for public sector and other funders to invest in us to help reduce demand. If we truly are ‘community assets’, we need to be able to make clear how working in partnership with us as a sector (not as individual organisations) is a real and workable solution for the situation our public sector colleagues are faced with. And we will have to show how the sector can manage that rather than having the process defined for us.
Staying resilient – 2016 is going to keep making demands of us and we’re not about to give up: but I do want to stress the need to look after ourselves too. I heard so many people talk during 2015 about the need to keep doing more and more and working harder than ever. We’re a sector made of people so we must not forget to look after the wellbeing of our staff and volunteers. It’s important to remember that none of us can help more people by burning ourselves out.
There’s a saying that “when you’re going through hell, the only thing to do is keep going” and although it’s a pretty bleak way of saying Happy New Year, I do think it’s important to start 2016 by recognising that there’s a lot we can do. The big opportunity is for us to get back to our roots as social pioneers. We’re not simply ‘service providers’, we’re a constantly evolving ecosystem of social support where both the public and private sectors can’t work. We make great things happen by matching limited funding with our skills, creativity, determination and tons of gumption. 2016 is our opportunity to be the best we can be. (Again.)
In the meantime, best wishes for 2016 from everyone at Macc.